Forum 12/11

Remembering Hal Bruno:

A Special Relationship

Firehouse® Magazine readers knew Hal Bruno as a dispenser of wise advice on how firefighters could win the hearts and minds of the public and the politicians through effective navigation of the corridors of both City Hall and Congress. His Fire Politics column was a perfect outlet for a legendary journalist who headed up political coverage for ABC and Newsweek Magazine, hosted the Vice Presidential debate of 1992 and who also had a lifelong passion for firefighting. Only Hal could sit at a table discussing who might be the next President with Peter Jennings, David Brinkley or Ted Koppel, but be just as happy sitting in a firehouse kitchen learning who might be the next chief while hearing details of a stubborn blaze the previous shift.

But Hal Bruno’s mark on the fire service goes beyond politics. It revolves around a special relationship Hal had with the survivors of fallen firefighters. As a charter member of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s Board of Directors, its chairman from 1999 to 2008 and chairman emeritus until his death in November at age 83, Hal Bruno left a legacy that is unmatched in caring for the families, honoring the fallen and preventing firefighter deaths and injuries.

Chief Dennis Compton said Hal had some simple, but important advice for him when taking over as chairman: Care for the families of our fallen heroes as you care for your own. There was no doubt that Hal Bruno lived those words in everything he did at the Foundation. Hal was always there when a survivor needed an embrace, a hand held or just someone who would listen. And he did listen. When Hal learned that federal benefits under the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefit Act were stalled, he worked tirelessly with the Congressional Fire Services Institute and others to get what had been promised to the families of firefighters who died in the line of duty from heart attack or stroke. It came at a time when Hal’s own health was failing and he was considering stepping down as chairman.

Jo Ann Tilton of Katy, TX, who was one of the people whose benefits Hal was fighting for, recalls Hal pledging that he would not retire until he saw the Hometown Heroes claims being processed properly. She wrote upon hearing of Hal’s passing, “He kept his word and did just that. Hal Bruno was a special, special man. He will be missed.”

Another survivor, Sharon Purdy, of Spencerville, OH, who lost her husband, Lee, in January 2000, said, “Hal was the strength that was needed by all of us.”

When Hal brought me aboard in 2001 as executive director of the Foundation, he set a guiding principal that we still follow to this day. It is never about us. It is always about the survivors. Just a few months later, we were suddenly dealing with the survivors of 343 firefighters. It was an enormous challenge for a small organization with limited resources. But Hal Bruno never said no to what was needed to help the FDNY and the families of those heroes. In fact, the work we were able to do under Hal’s leadership after Sept. 11 helped create today’s National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and the services that are now available to the survivors.

Al and Maureen Santora of New York City, whose son, Firefighter Christopher A. Santora, died on Sept. 11, wrote, “His energy and vision and his perseverance created an organization that continues to grow and has helped thousands of family members understand what the firefighter family is all about. His legacy will live on in all of us.”

But Hal Bruno’s greatest impact on the fire service is still playing out. In 2004, Hal and the Board of Directors expanded our mission to work for the prevention of firefighter deaths and injuries. Much of that work is now being done in partnership with numerous fire service organizations. Hal Bruno wanted to look out over fewer and fewer loved ones gathered at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial each year in October. And that he has done. For the past three years, there has been a clear downward trend from what used to be an average of 100 firefighters dying in the line of duty.

A month before his death, Hal made his last trip to Emmitsburg, MD, for Memorial Weekend. Sitting alongside Hal and Meg Bruno were the survivors of 72 firefighters who died in 2010. Hal’s focus, as always, was on the survivors. But this moment wasn’t lost on me or any of us who had worked with Hal Bruno that this was a clear sign of the enormous impact this remarkable man had on the fire service he so loved.

Ronald J. Siarnicki, Executive Director

Natl. Fallen Firefighters Foundation

Emmitsburg, MD

The writer is the former fire chief of Prince George’s County, MD, and currently serves with United Communities Volunteer Fire Department in Queen Anne’s County, MD. He holds a bachelor’s degree in fire science and a master’s degree in technology management from the University of Maryland University College.